Thursday, September 25, 2014

Spiritual Fatherhood and Spiritual Childhood

Twenty-four years ago, after my freshman year in college seminary, I travelled to Vanceburg, KY to a farm run by the Glenmary Home Missionaries.  It was a service trip.  Today, I received an email from a guy who was on that service trip with me.  We've kept in touch for twenty-four years.  He's married now, has a couple of kids, and on two or three occasions during those twenty-four years, he's passed through Boston and we've met up.  It sounds strange to say it now, but when we first met and for the first dozen or so years of that time, email didn't exist.  Or, if it did exist, I certainly didn't know or understand anything about it.  We would write an occasional letter to one another.  (The same is true of another guy that I met on that trip.  We've kept in touch for the past twenty-four years--here and there--but we've never seen each other since).

I have to admit, the passage of time makes my memory of those events twenty-four years ago less vivid.  But, I do remember hanging out with this fellow, laying on a dirt road, smoking cigarettes (I was never really a smoker, but in the midst of Vanceburg, Kentucky where we were surrounded by Tobacco, that seemed like the thing to do), and talking about life.  

I've been ordained seventeen years. It makes me really happy to feel like I'm still learning.  I'm just a kid when it comes to priesthood.  I was in one of my assignments for 13 years.  Sometimes other priests would say, "By this point, you must be getting stale."  To me, I was just beginning!  I feel like I am always learning about the priesthood, about discipleship, about the Church.  While I may wake up here and there and dread a particular meeting or a particular event, I still wake up every day fully expecting that something new is going to happen.

This guy who emailed me today reminded me of the beauty of the Church.  It's been twenty-four years since we met.  But, I have confidence that we met because Christ has a plan.  When I became a pastor, it was at a moment when in the Archdiocese of Boston, the whole thing was blowing up.  Christ surrounded me with all of these beautiful lay men and women who, by their openness, desire for true communion, and charity taught me so much about being a priest.

Tomorrow, I leave for a weekend retreat with a group of college students from Boston University.  I'm beginning my second year with them.  I know that I'm the priest and the spiritual father of our community.  And yet, they teach me.  They teach me about the Catholic life and they teach me about priesthood.  This is one of the most beautiful things about the Church to me.  I'm educated daily by the communion of life that I share with the others.  

The people that I encounter in the Church are not all perfect saints.  But each of them--as a member of the Body of Christ--is a gift to me.  They offer me some encouragement in following Christ.  Whether they be 18 years old or 80 years old, whether they be the daily communicant or the person who doesn't even go to church, whether they be the married man, the single woman, or the discerning young person, these people teach me.  They encourage me and educate me.

As a priest, I am a spiritual father.  And at the same time, I am a spiritual child.  For me, one of the best parts of being a priest is that I am continually surprised (like a child) by what Christ does in my life.  Hearing the confessions of college students, watching a father raise his children or a mother tending to the needs of an ill child, or seeing a young person on fire for Christ--all of this surprises me.  It leaves me thinking, "Who am I that I should witness such things?"  

In seventeen years as a priest, I've been surprised a lot.  As I've witnessed various persons whom the Lord has placed in my life this week--people whom I met 24 years ago and people who weren't born 24 years ago, something struck me.  An important part of being a spiritual father--at least for me--is being a spiritual child.  Both as a parish priest and now as a college chaplain, I feel like I'm the one who is learning the most!  I'm the one who is most surprised every day.  I am the one who is being educated the most. 

Both in the parish and in the university, I feel like I give the least and receive the most.  Every day is a surprise for me.  The witness I have to offer to others is this: Despite all of my weaknesses, God surrounds me every day with a host of Christian witnesses.  I need these witnesses and am grateful for them.  By virtue of ordination, I am a spiritual father.  But, that fatherhood is vivified by the constant surprise that comes from being a spiritual child who is loved and cared for by the Good Shepherd.

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